Age just a number at Maccabiah Games

Being an alter-kacker — Yiddish for someone who’s an “old fart” — is relative. 

Many of the species, stereotypically, while away summer days at the beach cabana, sporting white shorts and knee-high dark-checkered socks, playing cards with the boys and grumbling about surgeries or high blood pressure medication.

Their opposites flash some speed on the tennis court, basketball court or in the swimming pool, such as the athletes competing in the 19th Maccabiah Games, which held its opening ceremonies here in Jerusalem on July 18.

The Maccabiah, like most athletic events, trends young. The nearly 1,200-member American delegation to what is sometimes called the “Jewish Olympics” includes only about 270 competing in the masters division, which is for those over age 35. In that group are about 20 Los Angeles-area athletes at least 50 years old competing in basketball, half-marathon, soccer, softball, squash, swimming, table tennis and tennis. 

A few other tennis and golf players are entered in the grand masters division for those over 65, while Jon Levin, 55, of Huntington Beach even earned a spot on the open golf team, where he is more than double the age of all but one teammate. The oldest L.A. competitor listed on the U.S. roster is a 78-year-old tennis player.

Like their younger cohort, the masters and grand masters athletes faced tough tryouts to earn roster sports, and, once selected, trained seriously. There were aches and pains and, in some cases, even special training with Israel in mind.

Because of their station in life, masters participants are required by Maccabi USA, the Philadelphia-based national federation, to subsidize the expenses of coaches and athletes throughout the American delegation. Aside from their own travel and lodging expenses and Maccabiah registration fees, each masters athlete pays $6,000 to Maccabi USA to cover such subsidies, said the federation’s chairman, Bob Spivak.

“The masters athlete is a high level of sportsman, but we need their financial help to make it operative,” Spivak said.

Some of the L.A. athletes already have strong ties to Israel. 

One — Steven Davis, a lawyer from Beverly Hills — bought a second home in north Tel Aviv, a product of his wife Julie Shuer’s infectious love for the country that rubbed off on him. The family’s bond with the Holy Land goes deeper, with son Benji and daughter Gaby having made aliyah; the latter recently completed her military service.

Davis, 60, a member of his University High School and Dartmouth College tennis teams, tried out for the Maccabiah at his wife’s urging. After being selected, Davis adopted a daily training routine that included riding an exercise bike and doing yoga. He also played tennis three to five times a week. When he strained his back in early June, Davis got massage therapy three times a week and pronounced himself good to go.

Davis said his approach heading into the Maccabiah had been simple: “trying not to get injured.”

“In this age group, if you’re not injured, you’re ahead of the game,” he said.

Steven Davis, a lawyer from Beverly Hills, said his approach has been “trying not to get injured.” Photo courtesy of Julie Shure

While Davis already had a foothold in Israel, it’s Gary Berner’s first visit here. Berner, a financial adviser from Oak Park, heard about the Maccabiah from a colleague, who happened to be organizing the tennis tryouts.

Because his wife’s and children’s schedules would prevent their attending the Games, Berner was inclined to wait until the next Maccabiah Games in 2017 — but his physical therapist set him straight.

“He really advocated that I go,” said Berner, 56. “He said, ‘You could wait, but [in the meantime] you could blow out your knee or you could die.’ ”

Berner hired a trainer early this year to design workouts. They included what Berner complained were “the most awful exercises,” including squats, skipping laterally with his hands behind him, jumping onto tables and stretching resistance bands. In the process, Berner dropped 20 pounds and lowered his cholesterol count 30 points without meaning to.

A propitious encounter also led Jonathan McHugh to the Maccabiah. Last September, McHugh ran into a friend, who told him that tennis tryouts would be held the next day. McHugh, 51, didn’t make the cut in the 50-54 age bracket but was offered a spot in the more challenging 45-49 grouping. He accepted.

In the 10 months since, McHugh, a Santa Monica film producer, did a great deal of aerobic cross-training and lost 15 pounds. He also scheduled singles and doubles matches in the midday sun to prepare for the intense Israeli summer, joined a United States Tennis Association league and played several tournaments.

Meanwhile, West Los Angeles resident Peter Lowy, 54, is in Israel competing in the Maccabiah, too — just not for the United States. He’s playing basketball for his native Australia. 

Lowy, co-chief executive officer of Westfield Group and chairman of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal, previously competed for Australia in the 1997 Games, for the masters soccer team. 

His first game this year, on July 22, was — appropriately enough — against the United States. Australia lost, but, Lowy said, the game was “fun and really competitive,” made better by his facing a hometown player, Richard Farber, 52, of Pacific Palisades.  

Another local connection is the coach Lowy recruited for the Australian team — ex-Lakers guard Norm Nixon, with whom he’d played plenty of pickup ball in preparation for the Maccabiah.

“They come here to compete and have fun,” Nixon said of his players, although he could have been speaking of Maccabiah athletes — young and not-so-young — in general. “Guys who might not have made the Olympics have an opportunity to compete against guys from all over the world.”

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